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When Ins Choi found himself playwriting for an Asian-Canadian theater company, he didn't have to look far for source material. For "Kim's Convenience," Choi found inspiration in his experiences growing up in Canada. The play was adapted into a television show and became a breakthrough for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — the country's national public broadcaster — premiering Canada's first Asian leads in a TV sitcom in October.
“On the one hand, I’m extremely proud and heartened by this opportunity. But on the other hand I’m frustrated because it’s 2016, and it’s taken this long for us to get here.”
The series revolves around the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family of four as they run a corner shop in suburban Toronto.
“Koreans in Toronto back in the 80s all had convenience stores, like my friends’ parents and my uncles,” Choi told NBC News. “It’s fueled from experience but nothing biographical. I’m still connected to my friends and people I know from that time.”
The play "Kim’s Convenience" pre-launched in 2011 at the Fringe Festival, and Canadian theater company Soul Pepper picked it up in 2012. It began touring across the country at that time, and continues to do so, even as the series runs on television.
Choi, an actor himself, said he noticed a lack of diversity within the field and wanted change. Before creating Kim’s Convenience, he was close to quitting acting altogether.
“I was sick of the roles being offered,” he said. “They didn’t speak to me.”
That’s when a local Asian-Canadian theater company invited him to join them as part of their playwriting unit.
“It was kind of a full circle of being frustrated with the system because I wasn’t included in their stories, then writing my own stories, and then finally the system including my stories,” Choi said.
There was similar frustration for actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. In the series, he portrays Appa — which translates to “dad” in Korean.
“On the one hand, I’m extremely proud and heartened by this opportunity,” he told NBC News. “But on the other hand I’m frustrated because it’s 2016, and it’s taken this long for us to get here.”
Lee was born in Korea, but brought to Canada when he was 3 months old. He’s only visited Korea once since moving to North America, but when he began his career in acting, he noticed he was often typecast as a particular kind of character.
“As an Asian actor you’re asked to put on an accent a lot of the time. Chinese, Vietnamese, sometimes Japanese. But I had a huge block with putting on a Korean accent. ... I wanted to be white, basically. And that carried over to my acting.”
“As an Asian actor you’re asked to put on an accent a lot of the time. Chinese, Vietnamese, sometimes Japanese,” he said. “But I had a huge block with putting on a Korean accent. With my desire to assimilate with Canadian culture, I didn’t want anything to single me out when I was a kid. I wanted to be white, basically. And that carried over to my acting.”
Lee, who speaks English with a Canadian accent, was able to overcome that block in this series. He portrays Appa, a middle-aged Korean man who immigrated at a late stage in his life, with a thick Korean accent.
“Ins asked me to do the first two scenes in a public reading for him,” Lee said. “What struck me was that [the characters] were so authentic and so truthful. It was like a switch being thrown on in my head – and my dad’s accent coming out of my mouth.”
He said he has received criticism for the accent, but urges his critics to look beyond it.
“The character is not a joke – when we do the accents, we strive for realism and authenticity,” he said. “It’s a realistic part of who [Appa] is.”
Appa’s counterpart, Umma, or “mom,” is portrayed by Jean Yoon. Like Lee, Yoon also puts on an accent for the role. She said she didn’t have much in common with her character, but knew someone who did.
“When my parents first saw the show, my mom was like: ‘Only I’m looking at you. You look very good, very natural. I think it’s very good’ — she was identifying with it,” Yoon told NBC News.
She also had frustrations in trying to find Asian characters that were fully developed, but Yoon is optimistic in the future of the industry, calling projects like Kim’s Convenience ”baby steps” in a continuum of progress.
“I’ve been waiting a long time — it’s been like staying afloat, treading water, saying — ‘one day.’” she said, laughing. “It’s great to have a character with so much depth and story to explore. I’m over the moon.”
The cast doesn’t want Canada’s headway in diversity to end with “Kim’s Convenience.” With shows like “Fresh off the Boat,” “Dr. Ken,” and “Master of None” making their marks in the U.S., they hope “Kim’s Convenience” will someday be recognized as a flagship show for Canadian television.
“That’s what I love about Kim’s as well — it’s so unapologetically Canadian,” Lee said. “It’s a unique way of story telling. We have a strong voice and we need to stick with it.”